A brave new world
150 hours. That is in no way shape or form an example of hyperbole, it’s the factual length of my first expedition into the exquisitely detailed and rancorous world of The Witcher. Now 150 hours of gameplay is no small feat and is extremely impressive to say the least, but every single hour would be meaningless if the moment to moment gameplay was incapable of warranting the gargantuan experience; in a similar manner to any open-world game, the vast world created is meaningless if the world itself is a lifeless shell. The genre needs to have core gameplay and objectives that are meaningful and rewarding in their own right, and a world that can breathe and be as amiable and vulnerable as the people who inhabit said world. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a remarkable experience that not only meets all these expectations, but surpasses them exponentially, in a manner very few open world games are able to achieve. The large expansive world of The Witcher 3 may be its greatest star yet as the world itself is dynamic, volatile, and exceptionally gorgeous. The world is quite literally your sandbox and you’re free to hunt, race, liberate, fight, gamble, craft, and explore to your heart’s content. Each task carries significant weight and never emits that monotonous aura which has plagued the sandbox genre for years. Meaningful gameplay, paired with an exceptional, engaging world is a delicious combo that is seldom crafted successfully, yet CD Projekt RED have nearly done this, creating one of the most optimal open world experiences to date. Unfortunately its extremely poor exposition, repetitive and shallow combat, and copious amount of graphical disruptions hold The Witcher 3 from being the perfect masterpiece it easily could’ve been. Despite its discrepancies, however, The Witcher 3 proves to be an engaging form of entertainment that severs the line between player freedom and exploration and merges them together into one solid foundation. The Witcher 3 is one of the most expansive games I’ve ever played; regardless of my current state of progression, there was always something engaging to do, a banal moment in time simply never existed. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve played this year, no questions asked, and is the best choice if you wish to get the most bang for your buck.
So I’m not too familiar with The Witcher series (I’ve only played half of The Witcher 2) so I don’t believe it’s fair of me to criticize certain elements of its lore simply because I don’t understand. I tried taking everything in with an open mind and a grain of salt and even after doing so, I was still arguably confused in select moments: What’s the White Frost? What are the Wild Hunt exactly? Who’s this character again? What is the Elder Blood? Dozens of questions drizzled all over my mind and luckily The Witcher 3 has an extremely useful data log which tracks information on characters and monsters alike, to help those who’re not too familiar with its expansive lore. The core story of The Witcher 3 is fairly difficult to analyze as it’s relatively non-existent to some extent. As always, the story centers on the Witcher known as Geralt of Rivia, and on his concluding journey, he must travel volatile lands in order to locate his surrogate daughter, Ciri, who’s currently on the run from the Wild Hunt. Literally two-thirds of the entire main story is spent completing tasks for individuals in exchange for information on Ciri’s whereabouts, granted those tasks are usually relevant and Ciri’s involvement is undoubtedly apparent, but these tasks take away from the urgency of the core story and amount to padded filler designed to extend the overall experience. However, despite all of these negative connotations, these “tasks” actually end up being more interesting, personal, and poignant than the main story. The Baron’s story on his missing wife and child, for instance, is far more interesting than hunting Ciri down; playing detective and learning the truth behind the event was an extremely thought-provoking and slightly melancholic moment. Witnessing the lynching and day-to-day discrimination towards mages in Novigrad proved unsettling, fueling your motivation on possible opportunities for escape and/or liberation. Even simple side missions prove to be more entertaining than the main story; solving a plethora of murder mysteries, completing Witcher contracts and slaying renowned beasts, or aiding the future Queen or King of Skillege and resolving their personal affairs, side missions provide a wide array of variance, and although they’re meant to be a pastime, they end up being stronger than the main course. In short, the world is oozing with charm and character and proves to be more riveting and immersive than the story that centers it. That’s not to say the story is necessarily bad, there’s just not much story to be found for the initial two-thirds of the game. That being said, the final third of the game is extremely good and delivers one of the best, albeit small, high-stake battles which felt like a constant dose of adrenaline to the heart. Finally going toe-to-toe with certain malevolent figures was an invigorating experience that boasted an unparalleled ostentatious quality. It’s a shame that the other two-thirds of the story don’t mirror the grand-scaled nature of the latter third, but luckily the myriad of engaging side quests, complex supporting characters and their personal affairs, and the exceptionally realized world are more than enough to make up for the story’s shortcomings and give true meaning to this gorgeous, open world. Characters are done exceptionally well; they’re well-written, exceptionally charming, and surprisingly complex. The three main women in our Witcher’s life, Triss Merigold, Yennefer, and Ciri, are such endearing characters that you’ll grow to care for, and seeing them all embrace one another amidst the chaotic world they inhabit is a remarkably bittersweet feeling. Other supporting characters such as Zoltan, Dandelion, Vesemir, and the An Craites prove to be extremely heart-warming and compassionate, and if any of them were to fall, it would be nothing short of a tragedy. In regards to The Witcher’s visual fidelity, only one word comes to mind and that word is “inconsistent”. On one spectrum, the game looks absolutely gorgeous, particularly the environment as it’s meticulously detailed and certain lighting effects mirror professional photography work; on the other hand, character models range anywhere from the very well detailed to models that were ripped straight from the previous generation, it’s very inconsistent. The day and night cycle is a welcomed addition as it creates a surprisingly dynamic element to the gameplay; certain monsters will behave differently based on the time of day, and certain missions are only available at night, dusk, or dawn. You can even use the rising or setting sun to navigate yourself throughout the gorgeous landscapes if you wish to completely immerse yourself into this vivacious world. Weather effects are also not too bad on the eyes either, granted I wish there was more variance between the bombastic rain and the tranquil snow, but they’re beauty and tranquility are astonishing to marvel at nonetheless. The game did, however, crash on me more times than I’d like to admit, but luckily The Witcher 3 has an excellent auto-save feature, so I never lost anything important when the game decided to crash on me. Both the voice work and musical score are noticeable highlights, delivering fantastic performances and memorable scores that dynamically change based on the certain weather condition and whether you’re currently engaged in a battle. Regardless of my personal qualms, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is undoubtedly one of the best looking games of the current generation and given its massive scope, its graphical hiccups are easily forgiven and ultimately forgotten.
The Witcher 3 is packed to the brim with things to do, and there’s never a shortage of meaningful objectives to partake in. Expanding on my iteration earlier, Geralt can hunt animals and monsters, looting their corpses for essential resources needed to craft certain items and weapons, embark on his noble steed, Roach, and compete against royal elitists and beggars alike, exterminate bandit camps and monster nests, repopulating abandoned cities, betting and competing in Gwent matches (a competitive card game), and explore every nook and cranny, discovering lost treasures, weapon and armor sets, and places of power. In terms of traversal, Geralt can travel by foot, by horse, and by boat. Two out of the three work expectedly well and are extremely responsive; traveling by horse, however, is extraordinarily frustrating and the controls are atrociously clunky. Your horse, Roach, rarely responds to the action you want him to perform and even though he’s supposed to automatically follow the trail, he somehow fails to do so and continues to oppress the player. When Roach miraculously controls correctly, riding across the edge of a mountain and watching the gorgeous sunset streak across the glistening waves of the ocean is an empowering and breathtaking moment with a non-scripted, cinematic quality. Combat is fairly self-explanatory: there’s a light and heavy attack, a blocking mechanic, and an underused counterattack mechanic. Countering is unfortunately underused because dodging and rolling is significantly easier and quickly became my preferable method of defense as executing a proper counterattack was not my forte. The only unique and idiosyncratic element of The Witcher’s combat are the magic-based “signs” that are at the disposal of all Witchers. Geralt can cast signs to dispatch and oppress his enemies and quickly gain the advantage of the battle; for example, Aard creates a telepathic force that knocks over anything in Geralt’s path, while Quen creates a force field around Geralt and deals damage to all those surrounding when penetrated. Signs can even be upgraded to unlock alternate modes, accumulating more tools for your arsenal and allowing for more strategic leeway on how to use your signs in the most efficient manner. In typical RPG fashion, you can also upgrade Geralt’s abilities, offensive and defensive stats, and even unlock some powerful attacks. Combat as Geralt, when performed successfully, can be decently engaging, especially when pulling of some sleek executions; however, attacks don’t bear a significant weight and feel lifeless in comparison to the gritty, flesh pounding desperation of other titles such as Bloodborne. This absence of gratification and significance renders the combat to a repetitive level that still manages to be fun when it needs to be. Witchers are also supposed to be powerful, mutated humans that are renowned for their skills and power, however Geralt feels slightly underpowed in normal circumstances and seems more adept on an intellectual level.
For the first time in the series, The Witcher 3 has two playable characters: for the most part, players will control the renowned Geralt in a usual fashion, but certain segments will have supporting characters retell their experience with Ciri, from here, the player will take control of Ciri, who plays differently to my surprise. In comparison to Geralt, Ciri is extremely fast and extraordinarily powerful; instead of dodging, she can teleport to the desired location, and throughout the game, she acquires new abilities that give her an insurmountable edge over her enemies. She can lunge at enemies at the speed of light after a required charge, call a reign of fire from the sky, and teleport from enemy to enemy, Nightcrawler style as she slashes away. She’s fast and frantic in comparison to Geralt and I wish I had more opportunities to play as her as the game began to feel like an amazing Japanese action title like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. In the Witcher 3, you’ll also be tasked with solving a copious amount of murder cases, in which you must use you Witcher senses to play detective and solve them accordingly. These instances are not relatively difficult and don’t require much detective work at all but nevertheless they’re entertaining and fun and a great change in pace from the typical combat. An extremely addictive element added to the Witcher 3 is the card battling game Gwent. Gwent is probably the best mini-game I’ve ever played; hell if Gwent was released onto mobile devices, I would absolutely throw down some coin for it (although it would never be able to replace Hearthstone). Although it’s incapable of mirroring the depth of Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, for a mini-game, the depth found here is unparalleled and elevates its addictive nature. Cards are categorized by factions and certain cards have certain abilities that are essential for victory, for instance, the medic allows you to instantly play a card from your discard pile while the spy card is placed onto your opponent’s side allowing you to draw an extra two cards. As I said before, the sheer depth found in Gwent is simply unbelievable. You can even compete in in-game tournaments and unlock/win rare hero cards. I’ve honestly popped in my copy of The Witcher 3 to play nothing else but Gwent, it’s just that good. I simply can’t emphasize enough how much absurd quantity is ripe for the picking in the vast world of The Witcher 3 and luckily its sheer scope of quality is mirrored with its astounding quantity. Whether you’re slashing the remains of necrophages for coin, riding Roach across the desolate beach, soaking in some rays, or sailing across the gorgeous, open seas, The Witcher 3 will always have something for you to do. However, other games are able to handle certain elements in a superior fashion over The Witcher 3; Dragon Age: Inquisition and Shadow of Mordor encompass superlative combat mechanics, Red Dead Redemption unquestionably has the upper hand in regards to horse controls, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has better ship maneuverability and naval combat, detective work is far more engaging and thought-provoking in LA Noire or the Batman: Arkham series, and Hearthstone is obviously the better card game. The Witcher 3, however, successfully takes elements from the aforementioned examples and weaves them together into a competently cohered package which, at one point, was thought to be impossible.
As a game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a near masterpiece with unlimited potential as the sheer amount of tasks to do is insurmountable, and luckily every little thing you can partake in is exceptionally joyous and engaging. Although the story is relatively shallow, the well-rounded and memorable characters do more than enough to compensate for the disappointing narrative. The fact that CD Projekt RED was able to make one of the biggest worlds in gaming and populate said world with meaningful life and purpose, inside and out, is probably The Witcher 3’s biggest accomplishment. The civil events surrounding the world, pertaining to the characters I had grown to love, are extremely captivating and drive the core story forward, leaving an imprint of your actions onto the world itself. Although The Witcher 3 is not the perfect masterpiece it could’ve been, it still manages to be a staple in the open world genre of gaming and, alongside the excellent Grand Theft Auto series and Bethesda’s Fallout 3, is the golden standard for open world games to come. I honestly wasn’t expecting to love The Witcher 3 as much as I do; I’m normally not a fan of the fantasy genre and after immersing myself into Dragon Age: Inquisition for over 60 hours, I thought I had officially burned out but sooner or later, 150 hours had passed. Those 150 hours may seem daunting, believe me I understand, but don’t let that fear rid you of one of the best games of the year. Maybe now is not the best time for you to embark on this journey, but I implore you to eventually pick this gem up and perhaps chip away at it for a couple of months or maybe even an entire year, but regardless of how long it takes, you’ll be glad you started that 150 hour journey, because I know I was. With so much to do, and so much to see, who wouldn’t want to roam the gorgeous plains of this brave new world?